Kenya’s Maasai Mara: The People and Wildlife


For many of us, international travel is laced with the anticipation of encountering and interacting with cultures that are very different from our own. We relish the sights, sounds and smells of an exotic world, but most of all we delight in the experiences we share with the locals within these cultures. 

At a time when the world of international travel has been completely upended by the coronavirus pandemic, our journeys have become limited to virtual travel sessions and reminiscing while reviewing photos and notes from past adventures.

While settling for dreams of future journeys might feel inconvenient for us — the ones who’ve been privileged to have such past experiences — it’s important to recognize what’s happening to the tourism dependent locals who once welcomed us. After a year of quarantines and border closures, tourism dependent communities all across the globe have been financially devastated.

This hiatus is a good time to reflect on the impacts — both positive and negative — that mass tourism has on the lives and livelihoods of the locals in popular global destinations.

One group that has been critically affected by the travel restrictions associated with the pandemic are the Maasai, a well-known pastoral people of East Africa who are currently struggling under the weight of multiple crises.

Maasai women, dressed in brightly colored traditional garments, seen here as they greet guests outside their houses in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Context and Brief History of the Maasai

The indigenous Maasai live primarily in the grasslands of northern, central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. For centuries they have been a pastoral culture whose traditions and livelihood have been based on raising livestock, particularly cattle.

All the Maasai lands were shared until the British — who controlled this area of East Africa from the late 1800s until the early 1960s — introduced the concept of private land ownership which was eventually enforced by the government of Kenya.

In addition to land parcellation and private development, the traditional pastoral lifestyles of the Maasai were further marginalized by the creation of a number of wildlife reserves and national parks — the Maasai Mara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro being the most popular — where some of the world’s greatest wildlife migrations take place.

Maasai women with cattle outside a traditional village house in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Photo: Henry Lewis.

According to the Maasai Association, “The new land management system of individual ranches has economically polarized our people; some Maasai, as well as outside wealthy individuals, have substantially increased their wealth at the expense of others.”

Despite being a major tourist draw and generator of revenue for the Kenyan government, the establishment of the many national parks and reserves on Maasai land has severely restricted access to critical water sources and pasture for livestock grazing. 

Maasai men herding their cattle along a busy highway on the outskirts of the capital Nairobi. Due to loss of land to government-controlled wildlife parks, the Maasai must often move cattle long distances in search of grazing pastures. Photo: Henry Lewis.

These land use changes have restricted the size of livestock herds — once the Maasai’s largest source of income — and in many cases have created poverty and hunger among these once proudly self-sufficient people.

Such changes to the traditional way of life forced the Maasai to become more dependent on tourism in order to buy food and other necessities they could no longer produce for themselves.

Maasai men (warriors) preparing to dance for our small group during our visit to their village. Photo: Henry Lewis

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SehQoeMiKGo

These Maasai warriors are performing a traditional dance known as “adumu” which can be translated as ‘to jump up and down.’

The Pandemic’s Toll on the Economy

The coronavirus pandemic has only deepened the plight of the Maasai, leading to a dramatic loss in tourist revenue.

Government statistics provided to CNN by Najib Balala, Kenya’s Minister of Tourism and Wildlife, poignantly frame the dilemma.  During the peak season month of August, the Maasai Mara welcomes approximately 250,000 international tourists, but in August 2020, the Kenyan government only registered 15,000 visitors to the wildlife reserve. 

Pre-pandemic, tourists flocked to Kenya’s Maasai Mara and neighboring Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to see giraffes, elephants, zebras, lions, wildebeests, cheetahs and much more. Photo: Henry Lewis.

 

Two elephants battle while tourists in pop-up vans watch in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Photo: Henry Lewis.

 

Wildebeests lead East Africa’s annual migration with other animals such as lions following closely behind. Photo: Henry Lewis.

 

Cheetahs can be seen in abundance in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and often will sleep in close proximity to tourist vehicles, seemingly indifferent to humans furiously snapping photos. Photo: Henry Lewis.

 

Hippos resting along the banks of the Mara River which forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Photo: Henry Lewis.

 

Hippos enjoying the water of the Mara River which forms the border between Kanya’s Maasai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti. Photo: Henry Lewis.

The dramatic drop in international visitors is a major threat to 2.5 million Kenyan tourist jobs, and a particular threat to the livelihoods of the Maasai who welcome tour groups to their villages in exchange for a fee, along with offering their beautiful hand-made crafts for sale.

On Safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara

In 2009, I was fortunate to be able to go on safari in the Maasai Mara, a magical place where one of the world’s greatest wildlife migrations takes place each year between June and November. This annual migration, along with the hordes of tourists it brings, is shared with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park which is divided solely by the two countries’ invisible border.

A particularly self-indulgent photo of the author waiting for departure from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

As I always do prior to planning travel, I pored over any ethical concerns and read widely about the experiences of others. This is the same little voice in my head that has prevented me from doing overnight stays in countries such as Myanmar where it can be difficult to find airlines and hotels that aren’t controlled by — and therefore contribute to — that country’s repressive military government.

In the case of visiting the Maasai Mara, I was planning the trip with two colleagues, one of which had previously used an Africa-based travel agency who he assured us was dedicated to contributing in positive ways to the indigenous Maasai communities who inhabit the area where we would be traveling. I was also comforted by the fact that our vacation from the Omani university where we all taught was taking place in October near the end of the wildlife migration period.

The trip timing would be a trade-off . We would be witnessing smaller herds of big African game, but without the huge numbers of tourists traveling in those pop-top safari vans that otherwise might block the view. As a general rule, I always choose to travel during the off-season if possible when local merchants are in need of tourist revenue and a destination is less affected by the sheer number of visitors.

In addition to the thrill of seeing many African animals in the wild for the first time, we (a group of four plus our local guide) visited two different Maasai villages on different days. We were welcomed with traditional songs and dance and spent some time inside a villager’s house, built in the traditional way using wooden poles plastered with mud and cow dung, a tribute to the Maasai dependence on livestock for food and even shelter.

A Maasai woman prepares the wood for cooking inside her house while a child watches the photographer. Photo: Henry Lewis.

We bought some of their hand-made crafts, thanked the villagers and headed on our way. I must admit the visit to the village made me feel uncomfortable, like a continuing form of Colonialism. Here we were, a group of white Westerners playing voyeur in a poor African village.

This is one of the travel conflicts that often arises from the vast inequality between those fortunate enough to be able to afford to travel internationally and those who work in the local tourist industry. This conundrum, of course, raises many ethical issues, some of which I’ve addressed in previous posts.

We had been told by the tour company in advance to each bring some school supplies, a commodity greatly needed by the local rural schools. On our last day of the safari, we ventured to a local school and gave our selection of notebooks, pens, pencils and other articles to the local teacher, a young Maasai man who had returned from the city to help improve the level of education provided for children from the surrounding villages.

In his view, education held the key to the future of his people, one that would seek to preserve many of the traditions while at the same time provide the skills necessary for survival in such a rapidly changing world.

Final Words

Perhaps over time, being less dependent on tourist dollars will make these Maasai communities more resilient and create more diverse job offerings for the youth.

At least in the short term, we may see more Maasai moving to the cities in search of work while leaving behind their ancestral customs and close connection to the land.

In this case, we all lose as the world’s cultural diversity becomes ever more diluted.

[Note: African safaris can range in price from around US $70 per person/per day to as much as $1500 per person/day, so there’s a price range to accommodate budget travelers as well as those who want to sleep and dine in luxury. Our safari was in the lower range, but comfortable enough for me. We tried to be as liberal as possible in our spending with all the local vendors, the people that might otherwise be left out. In addition, tips are customary for tourist guides and others who help in any way. I always tip those we rarely see — such as hotel maids — who provide a valuable service but are often paid extremely low wages for their labor.]

And one more bit of advice. Before going on a safari, invest in a decent camera for Pete’s sake. I didn’t and the results are evident. 🙂

peace~henry

Categories: Culture, TravelTags: , , , , , ,

20 comments

  1. I am no stranger to your questions about the ethics of travelling to countries with different economic and/or political conditions from the Western world. There is certainly some discomfort in knowing that they are unfairly penalised, but I am convinced that tourist visits help to foster a process of normalisation, even if the corollary is a loss of particularisms. But I don’t think that we can wish for populations to be kept in living conditions that we wouldn’t want, just to satisfy our taste for exoticism.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Overall, I agree with your sentiments. One point I was making about visiting Maasai villages is that I felt as if the people were on display in much the same way that we might visit a zoo to see exotic animals. From my studies of anthropology, the question that arises is how much cultural interaction and exchange with indigenous cultures is too much? There are some indigenous cultures here in Colombia that do not allow any tourist visits because they want to live a traditional existence separated from the modern world.

      I of course want others to live in safe environments with good medical care, proper housing, clean water and all the necessities they desire. However, I also think it’s important for indigenous communities to be supported in making decisions for themselves rather than having Western concepts forced on them due to a vast power imbalance. Thanks so much for sharing your keen insights.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. An amazing insightful post Henry. Africa and Safari are very much in my bucket list.

    2021 has begun well for me – just published my first book – 4 Pillars of Abundant Life

    I wish and pray that 2021 is great for you too. Do check out the book 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post and wonderful photos!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. We were also quite uncomfortable visiting a Masaai village as it felt as if it was all for show. As soon as a large tour bus pulled up the entire village ran away from us and toward them. It’s difficult because they’re not making much money with their cattle and traditional way of life, but now the main tourist revenue source is gone. Hopefully they, as with many ‘tribal’ villages around the world can find a better way to support themselves than to rely on tourist dollars. I don’t know what the solution is though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Maggie and Richard,

      It’s quite a conundrum I’m afraid. I would like for ‘tribal’ or indigenous peoples to be able to chart their own fates, but the economic pressures of encroaching civilization have made that more difficult as the decades have passed. In the end, I think travelers must make their own decisions about home visits based on research and discussion with as many locals as possible. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Like

  5. Thanks for sharing, Henry. How terrible that the Maasai have to open their homes and villages to the scrutiny of strangers in order to survive!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. What a wonderful virtual trip away from my coastal Virginia neighborhood! I appreciate your sensitivity to other cultures and the animals.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi John,

      From Africa to Virginia, I’m happy that you joined this trip. Seeing Africa’s big game in its native habitat was very inspiring. And, astonishing in many ways that humanity hasn’t yet destroyed all such habitats. Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. In 2018 we traveled to Peru with a group from OAT. Our group of 14 had a wonderful local guide who knew well the importance of seeing the local people in realistic settings. We also visited some of the money making ventures meant to capture our dollars. One of the most fun and memorable stops was at a local elementary school in a tiny mountain village. When our bus stopped, the kids rushed out. A 10 yr old named Henry grabbed my hand. He took me to the school bathroom, then into the classroom. We had brought supplies for gifts. Our guide led a discussion between the kids and our tour members about where we came from. He highlighted our homes on a map of the US. At the end, the kids performed a couple of beautiful songs for us. That visit sits near the top of that trip along with Machu Picchu and other historical sites.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Jim,

      Sounds like you had wonderful adventures in Peru! It’s a fascinating destination with very friendly locals who benefit from the tourist economy. I think visits to schools are a great way to have a positive impact and a valuable educational experience for both the visitors and students. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting post. Doing a safari and visiting Africa is on our list as well. I wonder how these people are doing with Covid?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi John and Susan,

      From all the stats I’ve seen online, Kenya has managed to keep their coronavirus infection rates quite low. Of course, those are government statistics which depend on testing and transparency.

      In the past, the Maasai have been affected by high rates of HIV infection, and such immune disorders appear to make cases of Covid-19 more severe. I certainly wish them all the best, as well as all other indigenous peoples, during this global health crisis.

      Like

  9. Thank you for speaking about ethical travel, Henry. I am glad that tourism helps the Maasai, yet saddened that it interferes with and seems to snoop into people’s daily lives. I wish there were the space and the economics for the Maasai to live their traditional lives in peace. Thanks for mentioning that in Colombia there are indigenous people who prohibit contact with outsiders, in order to keep their traditional way of life. That is heartening to hear.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Rebecca

      Tourism certainly can be a double edged sword. While it brings in much needed revenue, it often requires indigenous groups to adapt to Western ideals of civilization. In the long term, such transformations damage the internal networks within indigenous communities, while at the same time destroying the unique cultural qualities that drew tourists originally.

      The Tayrona, a well-known group who live high in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on Colombia’s north (Caribbean) coast, have survived from the time of the first conquistadors by defending their villages from outsiders and still reject tourist visits. They are also quite self-sufficient, having never become dependent on government aid.

      Thanks for sharing your insights!

      Liked by 2 people

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